The Policies of Catherine of Aragon and Mary Tudor

Catherine Spare, Lake Ginninderra College, 2007

Spanish Catholicism had a significant impact on the reigns of Catherine of Aragon and Mary Tudor and, through them, on the English reformation. The militant nature of Spanish Catholicism was passed down from the Catholic Kings to Catherine of Aragon, who exercised it passionately throughout her life, especially during the period of her divorce from Henry VIII of England. Furthermore, this religious heritage passed to Catherine’s daughter, Mary Tudor, inspiring her persecution of Protestant heretics.

Catholicism in Spain was very intense and militant, as indicated by the introduction of the Spanish inquisition in 1492 and the creation of the Jesuits, founded by Ignatius Loyola, who himself was deeply influence by the religious fervour of his native Spain (Koenigsberger et al, 1989, p.210). The overall cause of this religious fanaticism was the Reconquista, the slow, Christian recapturing of Spain from the Islamic Moors that involved centuries of semi-permanent religious warfare.

Isabella and Ferdinand were the embodiment of the militant Catholic spirit that energised the Reconquista. Isabella in particular was very extreme in her religious fervour and this had a great influence on her daughter Catherine. Isabella vigorously and carefully educated Catherine, making her study the Bible, the Missal, the lives of the Saints, and other popular books of devotion (G. Mattingly 1942, p.25). Isabella and Catherine seemed to have a special relationship. From Catherine’s infancy her physical likeness to her mother was striking, and as she grew older she also had an increasing resemblance of bearing, mind, and character. Indeed, the same gracious dignity, slight aloofness, vigorous intelligence, basic gravity and moral earnestness characterised the young princess (ibid).

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In 1501, when Catherine was almost sixteen years old, she sailed off to England to marry Arthur, the son of Henry VII. However, Arthur unfortunately died soon after their marriage, and, after several years of widowhood, Catherine was remarried to Henry VIII in 1509. Throughout her marriage to Henry, she had several miscarriages, and babies that died soon after their birth. Catherine’s only surviving child was Mary Tudor. After many years of marriage, it seemed to Henry that Catherine was unable to produce a male heir and she was growing old, fat and ugly. As a result, the king began to petition the pope for an annulment so he could marry Anne Boleyn ('Mary I, Queen of England', n.d.). This meant great dishonour for Catherine, and, even worse to her mind, it was against Catholic tradition and the law of God. Thus, she passionately refused to submit to the divorce. Even to her death, she still referred to Henry as her husband, as exemplified by the following letter:

My most dear lord, king and husband, The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you have cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles. For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for. Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things. Katharine the Quene. (Letter of Katharine of Aragon to her husband, King Henry VIII, 7 January 1536)

The religious fervour that led to her unwillingness to agree to the divorce, did not allow her the room to compromise. Her connections with the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (her nephew), enabled her to indirectly pressure the pope to refuse the divorce (Koenigsberger et al, 1989, p.127). Moreover, because Henry was unable to obtain the divorce that he believed necessary to produce a legitimate male heir, he was pushed to a more extreme position than he would otherwise have been, resulting in the break with Rome. In this way, Catherine unknowingly, was somewhat responsible for the beginning of the English Reformation.

Catherine’s uncompromising religious influence was strong upon her daughter Mary and led Mary in her turn to a very militant response towards Protestantism, against which the English people reacted. Catherine was deeply devoted to Mary and to her education, which she dictated and directed stringently (Mattingly, 1942, p. 178). Religious education was virtually inseparable from education in general, so it is a very reasonable conclusion that Catherine strongly influenced Mary’s religious convictions. A letter from Catherine to Mary suggests as much; “Obey the King, your father in everything save only that you will not offend God and lose your own soul” ('Queen Mary I', n.d.).

When Henry declared himself the supreme head of the Church of England in 1534, he divorced Catherine of Aragon and Mary was bastardized, being declared illegitimate. Like Catherine, Mary never accepted this and vigorously objected to it for the same religious reasons as her mother. Nevertheless, after Catherine’s death, Mary wanted to reconcile with her father, Henry VIII, so that she could once again be in the line of succession for the throne of England. However, Henry would only agree to pardon Mary and restore her to favour if she acknowledged him as head of the Church of England, and the ‘incestuous illegality’ of his marriage to Catherine, and her own illegitimacy ('Mary I, Queen of England', n.d.). With great agonizing and moral reluctance, she eventually gave in to Henry’s demands. She always regretted this because it caused her severe mental and emotional pain and guilt, as she felt that she had gone against herself, her mother, and her God ('Edward and Mary: The Unknown Tudors', 2005).

When Mary came to power in 1553, one of her first acts was proclaiming Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon valid and legal. Her other main act was repealing all the religious laws passed in the reign of Edward VI, and converting England back to the old Roman Catholic Church ('Queen Mary I', n.d.). Mary also restored medieval heresy laws, which meant that heretics could be killed and their property and holdings given over to the Crown. In January 1555 arrests began, victims including not only the mighty, such as Thomas Cranmer and John Hooper, but also simple workers, peasants and many women (Koenigsberger et al, 1989, p. 296). The exact number of people who were burnt at the stake is disputed, but it seems to range between 275 and 282 people. It was because of these burnings that the queen gained the epitaph “Bloody Mary”. However, we must be aware of the bias of John Foxe’s writings, from which we receive much of the history of this period. He was a Protestant propagandist with links to Calvin. His work suggested that Mary was devoted exclusively to persecution of Protestants. Foxe is remembered as the author of what is popularly known as Foxes book of Martyrs, which included the accounts of Christian martyrs during the reign of Mary and became, after the bible, the most popular book of piety influencing generations of Englishmen (Koenigsberger, 1989, p. 296).

Mary regarded England as a Catholic nation that had been perverted, and to her credit, she did revive Catholicism in England. However, she also contributed indirectly to the strength of English Protestantism (ibid, p. 297). In a society where life was relatively expendable, her generation was still shocked by burnings for the sake of religion. The persecution of heretics produced a popular sympathy with Protestantism, so, ultimately, the Queen became increasingly unpopular. However, Mary probably presided over the executions in good conscience because she was following the Church’s designated punishment for heretics, which left her no room for compromise. Thus, the militant Spanish Catholicism Mary inherited probably helped increase good will toward Protestantism at this critical time in English religious history.

Militant Spanish Catholicism thus fundamentally affected the direction of English religious history through both Catherine and Mary. Through Catherine, the effect was profound because she was able to use her influence to oppose Henry’s divorce plans through the Pope, and did so because her conscience could not compromise. Thus Henry formed the Church of England, and his two younger children were raised as Protestants. Through Mary, her inability to mitigate the prescribed method of dealing with heretics, due to her extreme form of Catholicism, led to considerable sympathy for the Protestant cause.

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